Michael A. Nickles is a graduate of the New York University Tisch School of Arts. His acting career began in college with later appearances in Hamburger Hill (1987), Greg Beeman’s License to Drive, Death Becomes Her and many more. In 1995 Nickles moved to pen, paper, and camera lenses for his first feature Desert Winds, a dramatic tale about facing oneself and one’s inner fears. Now, Nickles is challenging horror fans to face their fears in the character driven thriller XII. This director and screenwriter has written a new villain, Leonard Karlsson, who is the stuff of legend and nightmares. Have a listen to Michael’s tales of working in the many different facets of filmmaking and find out why Karlsson is a face that fans will remember long after the safety of light has entered the theatre.
(Michael Ross Allen) Michael, you have a long history in acting and studying theatre. What made you want to transition from acting to directing and what qualities from acting are you taking with you into writing/filming?
(Michael A. Nickles) “Actually, I began as a filmmaker and transitioned to acting. I studied film at New York University. When you are in school, you end up acting in your fellow classmates’ films. I did this and found it very challenging. I noticed that when I was acting I was often frustrated by the direction I got from my classmates. It was invaluable to experience the process from the other side of the camera, if for no other reason than to know what the challenges are, firsthand. You feel very vulnerable and self-conscious as an actor; at least I did. I assumed others did, as well, and thought it would be useful to me as a director to learn more about how to deal with those issues. It seemed like a smart thing to do – a lot of directors that I admire have acting backgrounds: John Cassavetes, Woody Allen, Sydney Pollack, Polanski, and, of course, Orsen Welles. If you look at their films, the acting in them is always superb. So, I dove into the acting world – started studying at the Lee Strasberg Institute when I was still in film school and then, after I graduated, I studied with the legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner in Los Angeles. He is really the one who opened my eyes to what acting was about – “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances” – and how I might accomplish that. It is that training that I fall back on when I am directing actors now.”
(MRA) So, originally you are from Syracuse, New York with a background in the Arts; yet, your latest film XII has a very western desert look and feel from the setting/cinematography. Do you have some experience filming on the westcoast or did you have some help along the way?
(MAN) “I have lived in Los Angeles since the mid-nineties, so I am familiar with a lot of the desert terrain out here. Going into XII, I was certain that I did not want it to take place in a city – I wanted a lonely, isolated feel. We shot in Palmdale, California and I credit my cinematographer, Mark Petersen, for capturing the right look for it.”
(MRA) In the film XII Leonard Karlsson is convicted of murder by jury and I am wondering if in fact he is guilty. If he is innocent then I am thinking Karlsson has some right to seek revenge upon those who convicted them. Otherwise, he is a straight up killer and deserves to receive some type of punishment. Is Karlsson a cold-blooded killer or are there some shades of gray in his character?
(MAN) “There is a definite, purposeful, gray area to that part of the plot. The producers – Keith Kjarval, Kurt Rauer and Tim Montijo – and I debated the issue of whether or not Karlsson was innocent from the very beginning. We went back and forth – how much should we reveal about the trial, do we want to definitively declare his innocence or guilt? In the end, we chose to leave it an open question, which I think works for the film. I like that it is open for debate. And, I think the story works either way you look at it. Personally, I think he is guilty. I do not think Claire would have agreed to a conviction unless she was absolutely sure.”
(MRA) My impression is that he is in fact guilty based on what I have seen from the trailer. In the clip he ruthlessly murders a prison guard and I am thinking to myself, this is a character who has done this before.
Are there any sub-plots introduced in XII outside of the revenge theme that is central to the film e.g. romance, family ties, childhood memories etc?
(MAN) “When I finished the script, I gave it to my friend Mike, who read it and said, ‘Oh, it’s a female empowerment-horror film.’ I laughed, because he was right. It is a funny way to describe it but it’s true. The subplot to XII – outside of Karlsson’s brutal revenge – is the growth of the lead character, Claire, as she discovers she is ‘stronger than she thinks,’ which is a line repeated several times in the film. I am proud that we were able to track that arc in an organic way and I think our lead actress – Emily Hardy – did a great job of expressing it emotionally.”
(MRA) Right now the market seems flooded with horror films. I think this is partially due to the economy right now and people are looking for escapism. So, I am wondering, why is it important that fans see this film, or what sets XII apart from other films in the genre?
(MAN) “You know, going into a movie like this can be pretty daunting. It was a low budget film, which means you are definitely limited in what you can shoot. You simply don’t have the resources to tell a big story. Or wow everyone with effects. The producers and I had long talks about what we could do that would make our film stand out from others. Ultimately, we decided that we’d tweak the expectations of the genre a little bit – for example, we would not have a gruesome death every ten minutes. We wouldn’t rely on nudity. We’d start out with a Bang, so to speak, but then we would settle into the story a little bit, meet the characters, understand the town. That way, when the shit does hit the fan at the end, there are real lives at stake. My wife says it’s a ‘small town character drama that gets hijacked by a horror film,’ which is an idea I like. Focusing on the characters allowed us to attract good actors, like Nick Searcy, Mercedes McNab and Steven Brand, which is something you do not often see in low budget horror films.”
(MRA) Yes, I am familiar with Mercedes from Hatchet and I have seen Brand in The Scorpion King. Speaking of acting, your last role as an actor was in the film Life in Bed; have you left acting behind for good or would you return for the right role?
(MAN) “Definitely, I never really gave up acting. I just got busy on the other side of the camera.”
(MRA) Thanks very much Michael for telling me and fans a little more about XII and yourself. Now that film is almost ready to release, where is your career taking you right now?
(MAN) “I am excited that XII is finally finding an audience. The film won Best Film at the Int’l Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival, and we have gotten some great reactions to it. I directed a coming-of-age comedy called Just Peck, which is due out this year. And, currently, I am working on a supernatural thriller entitled Playback for a company out of New York called Bennett-Robbins. We are hoping to be shooting this July – thanks for the interview, Mike.”
Fans of horror or Michael A. Nickles can read an introductory article on XII here on 28DLA:
XII Here on 28DLA
As well the film has a fan site on Facebook here:
XII on FB
Have a look at the trailer for the film at the official XII website:
The XII Homepage
Or join the film’s Twitter feed:
XII on Twitter